Top army officer, Lieutenant General Santipong Thammapiya, says Twitter and Facebook have failed to do their homework by linking it to an orchestrated propaganda network of accounts taken down by the US social media giants last week. The move comes after Thai authorities filed criminal complaints against both Facebook and Twitter with the Technology Crime Suppression Division of the Royal Thai Police at the end of September for failing to remove illegal content under the country’s Computer Crime Act.
A senior Thai army officer has come out to attack social media giants Twitter and Facebook for linking the army to a network of fake accounts identified last week as being involved in pro-government online activity which, it is claimed, was disseminating propaganda and disinformation to support the government and establishment in Thailand while also targeting anti-government activities and protestors at this time of raised political tensions.
The Royal Thai Army has hit back at social media giants Twitter and Facebook for unfairly linking blocked suspicious account activity to it after both social networks publicly associated dubious and coordinated information campaigns on their networks with the powerful national institution last week.
Both Facebook and Twitter announced that both networks had removed upwards of a dozen networks of a political nature including 900 different accounts.
Twitter directly and publicly linked the Royal Thai Army to the network it took down last week
In a public bulletin, the social network Twitter announced: ‘Our investigation uncovered a network of accounts partaking in information operations that we can reliably link to the Royal Thai Army.’
The social media firm, which like other Silicon Valley giant Facebook, is currently the subject of a criminal probe in Thailand following complaints from the Department of the Digital Economy, said that the accounts and networks detected were engaged in a range of activities from boosting positive conversations related to the Royal Thai Army and the current government to targeting and sabotaging political opponents.
Both Twitter and Facebook are facing unprecedented legal action in Thailand under the Computer Crime Act after the Ministry of Digital Economy filed a complaint about the social networks with the Technology Crime Suppression Division of the police at the end of September.
It came after months of threats and investigations being launched by the government into the social networks for failing to control what ministry officials term as illegal content under Thai law.
Period of political tension with new crisis point next Wednesday, October 14th in Bangkok
Thailand is currently in the midst of a period of heightened political tensions which may come to head on Wednesday, October 14th, when a called for a General Strike and protest rally is set to take place at the Democracy Monument in central Bangkok.
There is currently speculation that the public mood in support of the protests has been diminished and subdued due to the group’s controversial and insistent calls for reform of the Thai monarchy.
Nevertheless, the student’s campaign continues to be portrayed and promoted on international media outside Thailand in a more positive light than local Thai media which understands the more nuanced situation on the ground as Thai people struggle to overcome the current Covid 19 crisis and a disorderly government failing to come to terms with the economic fallout.
Thai politics more fractious and more online
The student-led campaign for reform, linked with progressive groups, supported by young, urban and more educated voters is very active online while the Thai public of all backgrounds and age groups are increasingly following political developments through internet media including popular social networks.
This has led to politics in Thailand becoming more fractious as more people engage but increasingly, are forming divergent opinions.
The situation has now become more nuanced and complex than the previously colour-coded politics seen before the 2014 coup.
This is what led to the surprising general election result in March 2019 which resulted in a government led by the former coup leader General Prayut Chan ocha being installed last summer.
It has also seen the ruling Palang Pracharat Party in government win several competitive by-elections in recent months even as opinion polls show declining levels of confidence in the government.
Accusation against the Royal Thai Army echoed by elite Stanford University research unit
Despite the criticism and denials from the Royal Thai Army, the actions taken by Twitter and Facebook has been endorsed by the Stanford Internet Observatory.
This is a cutting edge research unit at Stanford University, set up in 2019 with a $5 million grant and led by internet security expert Alex Stamos. The observatory can detect what is termed disinformation and propaganda being disseminated online.
The organisation issued a paper last Thursday entitled ‘Cheerleading Without Fans‘ which specifically identified activities which it links to the Royal Thai Army but primarily relied on the precipitative actions taken by Facebook and Twitter.
‘To the best of our knowledge, this is the first time a social media company has suspended a network of accounts linked to the Royal Thai Army,’ the paper said.
The briefing then went on to give some background to the type of accounts involved in the activity that has been identified.
For its part, the Royal Thai Army is denying any involvement in the networks that were taken down by Facebook and Twitter.
Top army officers accuse Twitter of acting recklessly and unfairly towards the Royal Thai Army
The army’s deputy chief of staff and spokesman on the matter, Lieutenant General Santipong Thammapiya, particularly accused Twitter of unfairly assuming that the accounts were tied to the Thai army. Lieutenant General Satipong revealed the army has asked Twitter to clarify the matter further.
The senior army commander was adamant that no such covert operations were taking place and that the Royal Thai Army strictly used social media networks constructively and positively.
This was especially so in relation to Twitter which the army used for coordinating with victims in storm relief and emergency response operations.
‘I insist that we do not have a policy to make Twitter avatars for information operations. Our operations to publicise information are transparent,’ the senior officer insisted.
Meanwhile, an army deputy spokesman, Colonel Sirichan Ngathong, told the media that the social media network has unfairly attributed the accounts to the army without doing its homework and an in-depth investigation.
Colonel Sirichan referred to approved army Twitter accounts where he claimed only essential and genuine content was transmitted in connection with its valuable work.
Social networks clean up their house ahead of the US Presidential election on November 3rd
In separate statements on Thursday, Twitter and Facebook said they had identified and suspended more than 3,500 accounts between them, which used fake identities and other deceptive behaviours to spread false or misleading information.
The information emerged last week as part of a campaign by the US social network giants to prevent manipulation of the internet and social media audiences ahead of the US Presidential Election in November.
Thailand among a handful of suspicious actors
Among the countries identified by Twitter were Iran pushing the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States and pro-government groups in Cuba, Azerbaijan, Saudia Arabia and Thailand.
A small number of accounts were also detected and linked to Russia. The report appears to be limited to the use and coordination of fake accounts.
There was no mention by the social media firms of Chinese social media operations and its overt propaganda networks which are extensive and include an ongoing hacking campaign targeting western media and governments worldwide.